The Myth Makers

The Myth MakersTARDISOkay, firstly, thank you Andrew Pixley who gave me a very good steer by pointing out William Hartnell’s possible slip of the tongue on Desert Island Discs. And then there’s my brother, Jack, who moaned that why would anyone want to read another review of an old Doctor Who story? And couldn’t I do something more with a piece on The Myth Makers? Give it a bit more scope. So I tried. This ran in DWM #496.

DWM #496On 3rd August 1965, William Hartnell recorded an interview for Desert Island Discs. He spoke of Verity Lambert twice. “My producer,” was how he prefaced her in the first instance. Later, he told host Roy Plomley: “They’ve pretty much given me carte blanche [on Doctor Who], and as a matter of fact, Verity has said, ‘When the time comes we will give you a bath-chair, free.’ I said, ‘I might take you up on that one day!’”

Here’s what’s odd about that. Although he was referring to Lambert’s involvement in the present tense, she’d left Doctor Who two months before.

Maybe Hartnell was under the misapprehension she was on a secondment. Or maybe he was wheeling out a metaphorical Trojan Horse, whose deadly cargo would reveal itself three weeks later when his episode aired on the BBC Home Service, and John Wiles – his actual producer – was listening in.

If it was a covert attack intended to undermine his new boss, then, unlike the one at the siege of Troy, it didn’t mark the cessation of hostilities. Instead it was the commencement of a bitter war of attrition that raged fiercely through August and September, and the production of the four-part ‘high comedy’, The Myth Makers.

South African born Wiles had come to Doctor Who with some reluctance. A gifted writer and script editor, he saw the role as more an administrative, rather than creative, duty. “A producer is a desk person,” he’d told DWM in 1983. In regard to this particular appointment, he sensed expectations were for him to simply maintain a going concern. However, in his career to this point, he had demonstrated a high-minded aspiration for drama.

In tandem with TV and theatre engagements, Wiles had spent the last decade or so working in schools, and had been greatly influenced by educationalist Alan Garrard, whom he’d encountered at Fairmead County Secondary in Essex. Garrard had developed a class in what he called Dance Drama, encouraging difficult pupils to express themselves through improvisations set to music – and Wiles was a zealot for it. So much so that in 1957, his book, Leap to Life! An Experiment in School and Youth Drama (Chatto & Windus), was published, endorsing Garrard’s efforts. In the introduction, Wiles opined: “With the present moral decline of adult values, it is now more necessary than ever that we give our young people a solid foundation on which to construct their lives – a positive education in every possible sense of the phrase, both inside and outside the classroom. We can overlook no opportunity for doing this.”

We can overlook no opportunity for doing this. Even though he’d coined that sentiment years before, it’s so emphatically phrased, it seems reasonable to assert he would still have held the belief in 1965. Again, from that DWM interview: “We were not trying to break the format [on Doctor Who], but to develop it. I know that sounds very pompous, but with my experience as a writer I felt we could do it.”

His intention wasn’t necessarily to make the series more edifying, but certainly more stimulating, and the first story commissioned under his stewardship was Donald Cotton’s parody of The Iliad.

The epic poem had already proven a suitable vehicle for Wiles’ aspirations. Again, we look to his extra mural endeavours. As a member of the Arts Advisory Committee for the National Association of Boys’ Clubs, he’d staged large-scale productions with Turners Court School for Underprivileged Boys (you can see him in that capacity in a Pathe film, available to view online at: www.britishpathe.com/video/boy-chessmen). His 1959 effort – and he grandly dubbed these things ‘Arenascopes’ – was called The Trojan Horse, the 12-foot high creation having been built by pupils during their carpentry class. It featured the young cast miming to the music of Sibelius, and Wiles’ programme notes remarked this was not to be a “strictly literal explanation” of the siege of Troy, but “a convenient peg on which to hang a free and creative interpretation of an exciting legend.”

Which is also a pretty good summation of The Myth Makers.

An unusually florid script, it would be tempting to think it played to Hartnell’s vanity. But instead, a number of factors served to heighten his insecurities. Two years into his journey, the actor was the sole survivor from the founding team of Doctor Who, and, with some justification, saw himself its custodian. He should have “carte blanche”, and yet when his beloved childhood guardian, Aunt Bessie, died, he was refused leave to attend her funeral. Mixed up with his indignation and grief, one wonders if he was also reacting badly to the show’s new orthodoxy.

While Verity Lambert, David Whitaker and then Dennis Spooner were undoubtedly talented television professionals, Wiles and his erudite script editor Donald Tosh (in Beatles cap and floral shirt) were from more highfaluting, dramaturgical stock. On this shoot came, via Cotton, Max Adrian of his classical Third Programme plays, who was joined by a fellow performer from the Royal Shakespeare Company, Barrie Ingham (incidentally, appearing as Ayldon in the movie Dr Who and the Daleks from August 23). “And they, old thespians that they all were, rather sent up the local cast,” admitted Tosh in an interview with the Doctor Who Appreciation Society in 2011. Hartnell’s working class insecurities about being a ‘legitimate actor’ were, understandably, agitated and he refused to associate with his tormentors – which also included Francis de Wolff who joked at his expense when he fluffed a line. The lead found no support from the director either, Michael Leeston-Smith telling DWM in 1992, “I was no fan of William Hartnell and don’t even remember him being in my production at all.”

This adventure also facilitated the first ever dismissal of one of the regular cast. An unsettling event (“A bolt from the blue,” is how Peter Purves described it to DWM last year), it had been further exacerbated by the way it was handled – Maureen O’Brien returning from holiday to discover her character, Vicki, had been written out at the end of the tale. Wiles thought someone had already told her agent, Tosh assumed she’d wanted to go having apparently rounded on him during the making of her previous story, Galaxy 4, with the rejoinder, “Look, it’s not f***ing Shakespeare!” Thus she was to exit the stage as an ersatz Cressida who had now found her Troilus.

Yet from out of all that tumult, The Myth Makers feels unfazed. It’s witty and purposefully silly and sad – but it puzzled children of the day, who were expecting the straight-ahead blasts of a Dalek adventure following Mission to the Unknown. Instead they got: “Yet this mountebank Odysseus appears to be a law unto himself!” Other than the naivety of some of the storytelling (the distance between the Doctor suggesting the construction of a 40-foot horse, and the Greeks having completed it, seems to be mere hours) and the per-episode bouts of swordplay, there’s nothing for a younger audience.

Insofar as it’s possible to glean from the audio remains, it is a tale told in words, with flinty pronouncements equating to danger. Meanwhile the humour lies in overwrought dialogue (“You superstitious, dark-dodging decadent,”), which at times is coupled with a smattering of unexpectedly pedestrian prose. Take this instance from the final episode, where Max Adrian’s King Priam asserts, “Come, my children, our people have gone to the square of oratory, we must go and join them there and I must speak!” And then he turns to Vicki with a companionable, “See you later!”

Sometimes, the discourse seem to hang, like a word cloud of designations – ‘your friend,’ ‘your wife,’ ‘my brother’, ‘my king’ – but the mode of address suits the story. The clue is in the title. This is an exceptionally fictionalised environment, where it seems proper the players should enter and introduce themselves and each other. Such heightened language also sets up a terrific cliffhanger at the end of the first episode, with Odysseus’ revelation the TARDIS has “vanished into thin air”. Although it’s an overstatement in the style of epic poetry, we viewers – plus the Doctor and Steven – have cause to fret it might literally be the case. Has Vicki dematerialised the ship and abandoned them?

Cotton also pulls that posh boys’ trick of disguising gags about base topics in fancy attire. “I refuse to enter into any kind of vulgar bawdry!” says the Doctor (as Zeus), when asked to share stories of Aphrodite. But he’s less reticent about the sexploits of Mrs Agamemnon. “Your wife, for instance, is unfaithful to you,” he teases the great warrior, who, prior to this had been chiding Menelaus on Helen’s propensity for being kidnapped – “You knew perfectly well what she was like before you married her.” And while I’m not quite sure what being a “dropsical old camp follower” portends, God help any child who tried out that phrase in the classroom on Monday, or indeed declared the prospect of the Eleven Plus was making them “as nervous as a Bacchante at her first orgy.”

It’s to the writer’s credit he gets away with it. The Myth Makers is so beautifully detailed, its gilt deflects the critical gaze. But, if we can look past that, there is something more troubling than the odd ribald line. It’s the Doctor, who is morally absent from much of what happens. Make no mistake, despite his uncertainties and the odd stumble, Hartnell gives an exquisite performance, and the time traveller is highly amusing company throughout. He’s presented as a complete chancer, wobbling along wherever opportunity takes him. While the going is good, he pretends to be an incarnation of Zeus (Achilles describes his aspect as that of “an old beggar”, a very funny sleight on Hartnell, which he seems to bear with suitable comedy umbrage, although also an indicator of his wretchedness in this tale), but when he realises the charade is over and is challenged by Odysseus to account for himself, he deflects to Steven: “I think you had better tell him.” The scene, quite sensibly, fades out shortly after.

The corollary of all this messing around is the impression the Doctor is taking nothing seriously. He hand-waves Achilles and Hector’s swordfight at the start of the story by saying, “No doubt their reasons will be entirely adequate,” and hoping to interrupt their combat only to ascertain where it is the TARDIS has brought them. Chatting to the victor, Achilles, he refers to the corpse quite gaily as “your friend”. Perhaps, as inferred by the artifice of it all, he really does think he’s wound up within Homer’s fiction. It would explain why he initially suggests building a giant paper plane as a means to enter Troy, before cribbing the giant horse wheeze, enabling Odysseus to massacre the Trojans.

Mind you, that final episode, with its disconcerting shift into tragedy, does see a comparative realignment of the Doctor’s mindset. “You’re selfish, greedy, corrupt, cheap, horrible!” he tells the Greek hero, an outburst made all the more powerful by its lack of lyrical polish. It’s a good line, too, as if an unfettered sentiment has finally emerged. But it’s very late in the day. This Zeus Ex Machina simply returns to his machine.

By contrast, Vicki is wholly engaged in events. A 1960s female companion who, in contrast to her peers, displays real gumption, she’s particularly good here in her swansong. The key moment is when Steven – who’s contrived to be captured and brought into Troy to stage her rescue – winds up having them both sent to prison. When he moans, “How was I to know that you’d manage to get round King Priam?” she tells him, “You might have guessed. I know how to take care of myself.” Indeed she does. We’ve seen her charm the monarch and his family with an impressive alacrity, undermine her only critic, Cassandra (Frances White, who asked not to be credited in Radio Times, giving us a superb harpy), and set her cap at Troilus. Throughout, she remains impressively humble – “I’m nobody of any importance, I’m just someone from the future” – despite, Cotton’s script positioning her as a force equal to the Doctor. While he’s been tasked with getting the Greeks into Troy, she’s told she has a day to come up with a scheme to repel them. Steven is the one who points out that it’s her versus him, and it’s instructive he sees it like that, deferring entirely to Vicki in this struggle.

Okay, it doesn’t ever play out like that, but the dénouement throws all the story elements up into the air. We never meet Helen, although the prospect is teased. Worse still, we don’t get any closure on the fortunes of the marvellously indolent Menelaus. Something else we’re denied is the moment Vicki informs the Doctor she is to leave him. Like Ian and Barbara’s departure in The Chase, it feels as though propriety keeps this moment off-screen. As if the sentiment would be too strong – perhaps too real – within these surroundings. Instead, she hugs the TARDIS goodbye, and then seeks out her new love, Troilus, and immediately starts project-managing him on her scheme to build another Troy. Well, as she’ll go on to muse in the non-canon spin-off by William Shakespeare, “Things won are done, joy’s soul lies in the doing.”

There’s very little left of The Myth Makers today. The soundtrack, of course, some oddments of cine footage shot by someone in Australia who favoured Peter Purves and Maureen O’Brien, and pretty much every single photograph featured over this spread of pages. The impediments to experiencing it are vast, but if there’s a secret remit to DWM‘s ‘Missing In Action!’ endeavour, it’s surely to inspire you to have a go, nonetheless. Listen to the audiobook, perhaps, and let’s all wonder together exactly how they achieved scenes of the Doctor and soldiers camped out inside a giant wooden horse, him mithering on about the ineffectiveness of its fetlocks. But also consider it as a battleground of its own, where Wiles and his troops were locked in a campaign against Hartnell. A campaign that ended in failure.

During the production of the next story, The Daleks’ Master Plan, Wiles decided to quit, tendering his resignation in January. He’d later say his struggles on Doctor Who nearly resulted in a nervous breakdown. He had proposed the idea of replacing the show’s lead, but as Graham Williams would also learn a decade later, it can be difficult to exterminate the Doctor. That the next man in, Innes Lloyd, was able to do such a thing was in no small part attributable to a change of guard in BBC management and the increasingly debilitated demeanour of his quarry. It means The Myth Makers remains as the clearest communication of Wiles’ vision for Doctor Who, being the only story he commissioned and produced in the assumption he was to be charting the series’ course for the foreseeable, and covering a period of history that personally intrigued him – his 1977 play for young people, The Golden Masque of Agamemnon, continues to be performed in schools today.

Back in happier times, Wiles had promised his 1957 ‘Arenascope’, Battle of Agincourt, was to combine speeches of great poetry with “extensive virile movement, which would interest the least drama-minded boys.” It seems there was a dash of both in his Doctor Who… while it lasted. Some small profit.

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